EPA holds update session in Highlands

Jackie Young and Sean Matula were among about 20 persons that spoke.
Jackie Young and Sean Matula were among about 20 persons that spoke.

Representatives of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were in Highlands last Tuesday evening, to tell a large crowd what progress has been made on removing the Waste Pits from the Superfund site in the San Jacinto River.

A lengthy presentation by EPA Project Manager Gary Baumgarten was very technical in nature, covering testing, strategies for planning the removal of the toxins, and schedules for the work.

Baumgarten also covered the subject on everyone’s mind, the run-away barges in the rain swollen river, and the damage to the I-10 bridge. He covered the details of the incident, the damage to the site, and the fact that no pollution from the site or the barges has been detected. One barge was on top of the pits, though, and after it was removed Sunday more testing for damage must take place, he said.

With wry humor, he quipped that he had never worked on a site that had so many things happen to it, including floods, an 18 wheel crash, and barge strikes.

A large crowd of concerned residents filled the hall of the Highlands Community Center.

Baumgarten spoke about the schedule of work, noting that the Phase 2 Remedial Design had started on September 4th. The schedule now calls for final design to be completed by November 2020, and actual removal of the toxic wastes in the first quarter of 2021.

The Coast Guard was the onsite coordinator for the removal of the barges, Baumgarten said, and they have now all been moved to a safe location south of the bridge.

This week a bathymeric survey will be conducted, using sonar to determine if any damage to the cap can be detected. A probe with metal rods will also determine if any rock ballast is missing.

The technical presentation by Baumgarten was followed by a Question and Answer session, which also included many comments from the residents that were present.

Speakers seemed to express a displeasure and frustration with the EPA, blaming them for everything from slow performance on the waste pits removal, to permitting barges to be stored on the north side of the bridge, and therefore contributing to the damage and the large traffic jams.

EPA project director John Meyer patiently explained that much of the circumstances of these incidents was not within the jurisdiction of the EPA, but actually was controlled by other agencies such as the Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers, TCEQ, and TxDOT.

Speakers included Sean Matula, who grew up on a family farm overlooking the waste pits site. He said he suffers from about a dozen illnesses related to the toxicity, and asked for a stop to permitting and 3rd party oversight of the removal of the pits.

Many speakers blamed the Corps of Engineers for siding with the barge businesses, to the detriment of residents. Cynthia Garcia spoke vehemently against big business having more say than individuals. One speaker noted that only a few years ago there were no barges north of the bridge, and they should be removed now.

A recurring theme in the questioning was who permits the barges, and why no one wants to be responsible for them. And how an average citizen can have a say about them.

Frustrated speakers asked for immediate protection from future barge strikes, not more studies and planning.

Baumgarten said that the barges were owned by Canal Barge Company, but operated by San Jacinto River Fleet, who is an applicant for more barges.

EPA’s John Meyer said that excessive barge traffic was one reason they had decided to remove the waste material in the pits.